SXSW Xcript: Joi Ito and Justin Hall

Venture capitalist and World of Warcraft addict Joi Ito and lifelogger Justin Hall sat down for a conversation together in Room 9C on Monday afternoon at South by Southwest. Ben Cerveny joined them midway. Title of the talk: Online Games: Beyond Play and Fantasy.

Ito: I know everyone says this, but we’re going to try to make this as interactive as possible. Justin and I are going to talk about online games and what we can learn from them and things like that. I play World of Warcraft and mess around in Second Life, I think it’s stupid to compare them, it’s like apples and oranges. If you played text MUDs you know MOOs and MUDs split at some point. People who were into furries tended to go toward one, people who went toward the other focused more on gamplay and quests and levels. But it is interesting to compare in terms of what you can learn from them.

I play my WoW videos inside of SL and plan WoW raids in SL. SL is more for simulation for me, I do lots of ritual there, talks and things like that. It’s really not where I build relationships, although different people do that.

Shows a slide of WoW UI. Think all the way back to LambdaMOO, Pavel Curtis was saying the whole Internet will eventually be MUDs or MOOs. You can think of WoW as an evolutionary point in interface design. You can think of this as an interface to everything on the Web. You can make add-ons, there’s the Lua language for scripting that you can do. Shows his own more complex HUD with lots of add-ons. Most of the screen is in 2D. There’s all kinds of sophisticated stuff. Sometimes the 3D world is really important, but when I’m engaged in a boss fight it’s like a pilot looking at instruments rather than at terrain. A Lot of the innovation happens in the user community.

Hall: Let’s go into what some of the pieces of the interface are.

Ito: Explains some of the elements of the interface and the way they bring more information about the world to the player than the player could get from the 3D scene.

There’s a bunch of stuff going on and probably no 2 players’ interfaces are exactly the same. One thing is that we have a lot of military kids in our guilds, some soldiers actively deployed in Iraq. They say this is way ahead of the kind of information they get in their displays. I know this is a lot better than any real-time management software that I have. It is a lot like project-management in the real world, people get penalized if they’re late, there are 8 different classes with 8 different roles, you’ve got to keep everyone happy, etc., and all this data is getting logged so I can analyze it later on.

As these peope get into positions of being managers and start hiring guildies, because I’m now sending guildies to companies, I already know whether they show up late, how they act under pressure. This can all be converted into business talk.

We use TeamSpeak or Ventrilo. Richard Bartle thought audio shatters the fantasy of MMOs. The fact of the matter I believe is that the fantasy is already broken. We used to have this notion of being in cyberspace or being in the real world, but there is no difference any more. The game is just a common activity we do in this community, my guildies IM me, I have guild chat on my speakers in my house. I don’t think separating that out as a fantasy is practical any more.

One criticism of 3D is, text is better because in 3D there’s nothing left to the imagination. Steven Johnson, who wrote a book called Everything Bad is Good For You, responded to that in this way: Is it better to sit in your bedroom and imagine going to Paris, or actually go to Paris?

Difference between simulation and metaphor: Second Life is more simulation. WoW, where you have 40 people gathering to enter Molten Core here, has nothing to do with real life, but being together and the leadership involved is metaphorically similar to those same things in the real world. John Seely Brown uses the word ensemble: when you’re playing music together and get in the zone, etc.: Shows video of boss fight set to Strauss waltz. This feeling of it just working and having all those hours of time pay off is a reward you get. Really young people who have never been in a group like this suddenly understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. You tell them in church to be quiet, they don’t know why, and it’s hard to explain. If you’re trying to get ready and prepare for a fight with a dragon, they know why.

Leaders in our guild are more similar to an open-source project leader, they’re listeners. We’ve got bartenders and foremen. A couple of CEO and MBA types who have tried to be leaders in our guild have failed. They pay their employees, so they them expect to do as they’re told, as in the usual power relationships betwen employers and employees. You assume that people do as they’re told because they’re economically incented. But that doesn’t work in a volunteer organization, or in a guild, where people are actually paying $15 a month to be there. It’s a lot more like a congregation than a company, a lot more like leading a fresh startup or open source project.

Justin Hall: I don’t play WoW, because it takes so much time, and when you load it, it takes over your whole screen. It’s difficult to multi-task, and it’s difficult for me to put in the type of hours Joi has put in. I don’t have the time for it, and what I achieve in WoW I can’t take elsewhere. I used to write about my life on the Internet. And I stopped for different reasons. I don’t have any more that trail of essays about my life that I used to generate. What I’ve gained is a lot of time, because I don’t do that kind of writing anymore, so if I want that kind of trail, I’ve been experimenting with other ways to get it.

Shows his MySpace page. My MySpace page uses Plazes.com to show the last wireless Internet point for me, the latest video games I’ve been playing, recent Flickr photos, songs I’m listening to. If you took the time to look over this you could get a sense of where I’ve been, etc., but I don’t have to do anything, the Internet is notified about who I am and what I’m doing automatically. I want to bring earning experience points (xp) in these areas into it. I wanted to apply that same ability as in WoW to get xp for different areas of my life online

I’m working on this idea of passively multiplayer online games. Watching you surf the Web and giving you xp for using your computer. You might be as high level as Joi but just by doing what you’re doing.

The BBC thought this could be an educational tool. If you only read 5 sites a day, maybe you get a quest sending you to a new site. Did a prototype. Shows slide of how you get xp. Took all categories from Open Directory and then hand tagged URLs with categrories. Wants to know if someone can someone help him scrape del.icio.us or something for tags.

You’re getting xp, at least I can start to see what it feels like, and get a rough mapping of what people surf. Shows a user profile of guy who spends enormous time on wikipedia and Google, so his reference score is off the chart.

My model for this was looking at a D&D character sheet, which proposes to know a lot about people. All ways to claassify people are flawed. We went for genres of Web sites. Our current draft is a Firefox plugin you can download and explore. We ditched the URLs so that no one could ever subpoena us. But we can say Joi has a higher news score than shopping score. We’ve also designed a board game prototype of interactions between people. Also making a microformat so you can create an object that fits into this role-playing economy we’re creating. We have this test running now. It’s very raw. It’s at bud.com.

Joi: Question, what’s multiplayer about it?

Hall: If you look in the Firefox sidebar, there’s a chat, and there’s leaderboards. We’re trying to put in more paths to succeed.

Ben Cerveny, who worked on the multiplayer Game Neverending, which eventually became Flickr, joins the panel.

Ben: One of things I want to comment on is about something Joi and I had presented in a row with Steven Johnson at GDC was this kind of serendipitous long zoom from cultural anthrolopology to Joi talking about the way these systems are opertaional in the WoW context. We’re slowly transitioning from the idea of playspaces to metaphors for organizationsl systems. Talk about the dissolving border between “applications” and “games.” There was a book in the mid 90s [I missed the title, apols] that talked about the idea that a tool was the sculpture of contraints in possibility space. To make something that allows other people to make things, you’re building in a subset of things that can be made, promoting one subset over others. In game design, you are also creating a sculpture in possibility space, constraining actions of player through making of a story. Where we’re going is, we are beginning to, the abstract resource we find in play are these matephors Joi was talking about, the fact that we have interactions with computations that are actually with complex systems, whether they’re organizations. In general we’re mining metaphors out of the play sapce into the application space. One of the things you see all the time, if you go to interactive design meetings, what happened in 80s are finally showing up now.

The popularization of metaphors that then can be remixed in creative applications in ways that participatory culture, the consturction of shared evinomnets, ways we trade artifacts and media, all those things can be, the classical story we tell, what started off as an MMO ended up as an application for trading media [Flickr]. The thread we followed was the thread of play. Brought us into a space that rrelated us to our own media in a differnet way.

In the same sense, we have this idea of Flow, that you maintain an optimum experience by having a balance between simplicity and complexity of task. The construction of flow is aided by being in the state of play, because there’s a different relationship to risk and reward and learning.

Hall: Do you think Microsoft Office 2008 should be something where you have the rich presence of a Jaiku showing if your buddy’s awake in the office? Messenger might have better awareness of waht people are working with. There’s this thing called Slife, it’s total info awareness of your laptop, it basically publishes the content of your frontmost window to the Web. If we knew more about each other, we would be so much more in touch. In a small enough group, it’s okay to say, I’m going to know what’s on your screen at all times. How much you know about people in WoW with all your Lua, is that coming to the office?

Ito: The US is an anomally from the rest of the world because they don’t treat children and play seriosuly. The first thing we do in Japan is we figure out, kids use pagers to communcate wiht each other so mobile phones are good for kids, then the business peopel say, so how does what the kids do affect business, how are they creating these polychronic environments? In the US they ask stupid questions like you just asked. It’s like work should not be fun, fun is what kids do.

Fun actually means the interface is engaging, it’s like the Macintosh. It’s like Twitter, guess what, that’s what Eurpoe and Japan have been doing for a long time, texting, finally America discovers Twitter, you’ve figured out maybe these mobile devices can do more than conference calls. This whole barrier between play and work is an American thing. In Japan or Euopre you’re always online when youre walking around, it’s like cyberspace is the real world.

. . .

Ben: Play is a way to add structure. By melding things into recombinant parts, you’re taking away the towers that have already been built. The idea that you can, playfullness is something that allows you to look at things from many angles. As you’re swerving through all these possiblities, you’re constantly can get multiple perspectives so fast that you begin to question a dogma.

Audience Q: Our notion of acceptable work and behavior in work is not very old. All the corporate fear about IMing emerging into work environment, but the model of the worker doing nothing but work is not actually the traditional model of work. Imagine the craftsperson, working on things in an environment that’s constantly shifting between what we think of as life and as work. Watch for yourself as designing these things, watch out for building false dichotomies.

Hall: Look at a company called Seriosity, that tracks how you work and use email, etc. When I first talked about Passively Multiplayer with Joi and Ben, they said, this could be somsething like Web scouts, users giving each other merit badges for good behavior. There’s a space of passively multiplayer online games is a huge space that I share with a lot of people. What I want to build is as open as possible.

Audience Q about boredom. How do we make things stop interacting with us when they get bored with us? What does happen when it actually gets into the real world in a subversive way?

Ben: One of the things Stuart Butterfield and I talking about when talk about Game Neverending, concept of flipping play, almost like a koan. All you need is a trigger to get you to think differently. The idea you could have something that triggers, whether a shard from a game world that gives you a poke about the fact that you’re living in multipleworlds at once, draw you into a new world for a moment to have micro vacation, something that gives you presence whether other people looking at something you built, that give you an uncanny pullback just for a second that’s a littlle bit playful and brings you into a different states.

Ito: In a book about games there was an interesting idea, talking about whether multitasking actually works. They contended it didn’t work, but said kids have this multitasking thing where they take a break that for them is probably not relaxing but for us is. You can’t really multitask, I don’t think, you’re actually switching, but the switching is actually helpful.

Audience Q on emerging media and new technologies, effect on open and closed societies, mobile computing and its democratizing effect: How could MMOs or game technology also contribute to that?

Ito: I don’t have a really good theoretical answer, but: Our guild is about 350 people. We have town hall meetings, we have bylaws, we have a wiki. Probably there are people in our guild who have never thought to participate in a town hall meeting to argue about these kinds of things. We have priests, police men, coutnry music singers, all races. Two thing effect it a little bit: Have had some young kids come in very racist, I had to sit them down and say, look it’s not cool. Some of these kids who’ve never participated in anything diverse suddenly realize how cool it is to have conversation between Japanese guy and priests and soldier in Iraq.

One of the biggest problems in Japan, only 6 pct of people in a recent study felt they had any effect on government. A lot of new guildies don’t think they can participate, but then realize they had a huge effect. Having said that, other surveys say most people in WoW aren’t in guilds. So I can’t really generalize our guild out to the rest of the world, but there is a potential.

Ben: Also goes back to point about type of leader you find in a guild. The person in charge is often the best listener rather than best talker.

Hall: I’m taking an MMO design class. My teacher met this guy who made an MMO of all women characters since his wife said there weren’t enough women. Teacher was allowed to go in and did conversational searching on Please and Thank you. Gave rewards for the use of those words so those people would have a better experience, so you could tweak the software to reward being social, like if you gave a healing spell to someone in your contact list you’d get an aura, but it was hidden, just trying to give auras to nice people.

Audience Q: Hierarchical systems exist in corporations not because people are assholes but because it’s a side effect of industrial production. There’s a tendency to rail against all this unneccessary hierarchy, but seriousness has a role too. If I’m lying in the street bleeding, I don’t want my EMT approaching me with a sense of play. If the organizaing metaphor becomes MMO gaming, I don’t want to mourn the death of seriousness, but what happens to mission critical things like cops?

Ito: 90 percent of what we do in WoW is not playful or fun at all. Key is it has to have just the right balance, 40 man raid for the 8 hours you’re doing it is very serious. tremendous amounts of hierarchy. Raid leader lots of authoroity, but she also has to get eveyone’s attention focused for 8 hours, and that’s really hard without some sense of paly. We don’t want people to be goofing off when we have a copmlicated action to do. She has to know when to inject fun and play. You can’t bark, It’s like a startup, if you lead wrong there’s a point where poeple stop staying up all night. It’s the ensemble thing, more than just about pay. You do get the giggles when you finish, but you don’t get the giggles when you’re doing the CPR.

Audience Q: Have you thought about applying passively mlutplayer to virtual worlds, where more data is available?

Hall: I tried to find those Friday night 8 hour blocks to join the dragon killing, but I couldn’t work it out, but I was already spending this time on my computer, so I’m mapping this world that I know about. If I spent a lot of time in Second Life, it would become clear to me how to slice it up, so I don’t think outside the Web part, parsing of Web activity. But there’s a tremendous amount of opportunity.

Audience Q: Tracking happens autmoatically when you simply behave. Joi recently invested in a site called Rupture, social network for WoW that pulls out behavior and achievements in WoW onto Web. Where’s it going?

Ito: Rupture is directly competitive with Justin, it takes my life in WoW and makes a game out of it. Rupture tracks all your data about your gameplay in WoW. It’s already kind of what we do, we sit around in forums and chat on phone about what we do. Now we have it on the Web to point to.

Ben: People that have this meta knowledge of what’s going on in a game, the desigenrs are interested in hearing feedback. In Game Neverending, there was a user tracking all this metdata, he was so good that Ludocorp hired him. He knew more about what was going on in our world that we built than we did. Look at Swivel, a Web app for data visualization. ManyEyes at IBM Research. One of main uses for swivel is WoW data.

Ito: This is kind of exactly where the collision between the Web world and the game world is happening. WoW could have an API for each monster, but no, we have to go through each monster and extract that data ourselves. Right now the games aren’t very friendly. The good thing about why Justin had to wait is that a lot of Web apps now are very easy to build on. But the gaming industry is very negative about people drafting off them for value, where the Web is much more available. The question is, will the Web guys figure out gaming, or will the gaming guys figure out the Web?

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